The Curse of Cursory Idealism

by Noah Blaff3 min read28th Jul 20201 comment



In schools, children are often taught, “it’s the thought that counts.” This phrase implies that kind intent is of paramount importance. This can be a valuable lesson for children as they often make mistakes and the objective is to develop an inherent kindness within their thoughts and actions. But this adage can carry terrible consequences for the population. Vast amounts of the younger populations now carry the torch for social justice activism. False idealism can lead to surface level policy support that lacks efficacy but seems well-intentioned.

Pragmatism is a lost art. Identifying as a pragmatist in social justice circles today might lead to doubt over one’s support for a certain cause.

Some think these decisions should be empathetic. After all, empathy has its merits and ideally, one should make decisions knowing what it feels like to be oppressed. “But on the whole,” Paul Bloom, author of “Against Empathy” writes, “it’s a poor moral guide.” It supports foolish judgments and reactionary politics. Empathetic thought usually contradicts the cold, calculated nature of critical analysis, therefore leading to irrational decisions.

The insidious thing about empathy and idealism isn’t that they are malevolent, it’s that they are basic cognitive functions – our default approach to dealing with social issues.

A recent NPR / PBS Newshour poll finds that 50% of democrats positively associate with socialism compared with 7% of republicans. The same poll finds that support for socialism declines throughout generations with only 20% of Baby Boomers positively identifying. The younger generations have spoken. They want to see more equity in society, this is a noble cause.

But how do you achieve such ambitious goals? Surely, there are policies aimed at leveling the playing field within society. The trap to avoid, however, is letting empathy usurp efficacy. Good intentions aren’t enough. If you care about a cause, the only measure of success is the impact. Milton Friedman famously remarked that, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”

It makes sense that we show kindness in our solutions, it’s a moral litmus test to ensure we’re on the right path. Intentions, however, often interfere with optimal practices. For example, if you deeply care about helping university students deal with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, you may support the idea of safe spaces. It makes sense initially, there are people that are extremely stressed and additional exposure could only harm their mental state.

But what happens when they graduate college and don’t have such comforting structures in their lives? They will have bosses and co-workers hounding them to work late and submit deliverables by the deadlines. This contrast could damage the individual that struggled with such tasks in the comfortable setting of academia.

Such is the focus of authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff who wrote in The Atlantic that students demanding protection from words and ideas they feel uncomfortable with is “disastrous for education –and mental health.” The essay-turned-book speaks about various policies that maintain empathy but miss the mark when results are analyzed. Controlled exposure, in fact, in a major tenet of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), used for patients coping with such stressors.

This is an important lesson for the younger generations who self-identify as idealists. A friend of mine recently asked for my thoughts about some polarizing issue in the news. After having a rational discussion – point, counterpoint, follow-up – for a couple of hours he sat there confused. He was unwilling to accept that his initial feelings of empathy could have been misguided and led to a policy that didn’t make sense. He finished by telling me that he “would rather be acting in compassion, even if it was less effective for the cause.”

The other danger of this idealistic thinking is the falsity that there always exists a “right” answer – a perfect solution to be implemented. More often than not, all policies will have to be constantly tweaked and reworked, and even then, it may not be the best policy. What naivety must one have to assume that their gut feeling to help someone is the Goldilocks solution the world has yearned for?

In 2012, a father was having issues with his daughter – she was acting up, skipping school, and abusing drugs. Asking for advice in an online forum, a woman suggested sending his daughter to a Scared Straight program. “Sometimes,” the woman wrote, “a rude awakening is the answer for a young person traveling down the wrong path.” It’s no surprise this advice was given. At the time, television had blurred the reality of such programs and induced a lot of parents to engage with them.

The only problem is that these programs do not work. It’s even worse, they tend to do more harm than good. Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia writes, “Several well-designed studies have been conducted, in which at-risk youth were randomly assigned to take part in Scared Straight programs or to a control group that did not, and then all the kids were followed to see whether they got into trouble.” These studies, Wilson submits, “found that the kids who took part in the scared straight programs were subsequently more likely to engage in criminal activity … with an average increase of 13 percent.”

Politically motivated youth have a Herculean task at hand, trying to right all the wrongs and level the playing field. The next step in trying to achieve such goals is to put their heart aside and opt instead to use their head. It turns out, after all, that it isn’t just the thought that counts.